2 Vastly Different Psychological Approaches to Finding Purpose In Life

The concept of having a purpose in life has long been a center of focus in the pursuit of happiness. The logic behind it is relatively straightforward: if you don’t know why you’re living life, you’ll struggle to find motivation when you’re dealt a bad hand. Moreover, it can serve as an organizing principle in a person’s life. All the choices one makes, regarding their career, relationships, and just about everything else, tend to hinge on what one ultimately hopes to achieve.

In turn, the field of psychology has recognized how important purpose is. Studies have indicated that people who have a strong conception of their purpose in life are not only happier, but able to stay positive throughout the most trying times.

However, purpose does not have a clear place in psychology. This is mainly due to an unavoidable reality: purpose is strongly associated with spirituality. Religion and other forms of spirituality have held purpose up as a guiding light. Live life a certain way in order to be virtuous, to please your creator, to achieve immortality, or simply to do what’s right.

Purpose has often been associated by religions with the concept of eternity. The theory was that if all life ends at death, then whatever a person achieves becomes meaningless. Alternatively, any purpose you fashion for yourself is flawed unless it comes from an objective being.

The problem for psychology is that spirituality and science tend to clash. Life after death, creators, and morality are all considered speculative at best when it comes to scientific rigor. Psychology is a scientific field, and therefore the concept of purpose has to be divorced from its religious roots.

Psychology recognizes that, while many people have found purpose through religion and spirituality, many others have found purpose independent of it. The field has done its best to use the available data to build models through which to explore purpose.

These models are inevitably somewhat personal. What speaks to one person may make no sense to another. Someone who believes in life after death will take a very different approach to someone who does not. A community-oriented person will identify a different kind of purpose to someone who values individuality.

For now, we’ll discuss just 2 somewhat different approaches to purpose. One or both of these may speak to you. Both have helped millions of people from very different backgrounds to find purpose and lead more fulfilling lives.

Purpose in the Face of Death: Irvin Yalom

The field of “Existential Psychotherapy” was first notarized by Irvin Yalom. He identified key concepts around which all of psychology seemed to revolve. All psychologists work with these concepts, but they had never been taught and were barely spoken about. Yalom decided to write the textbook.

It is natural, therefore, to look to him for answers about purpose. Generally, he eschews the religious conception of purpose and guides people in finding their own definitions. He leaves the door open to finding purpose in fulfilling relationships, meaningful careers, a lasting impact on humanity and the world, and more.

He provides numerous tools to help people go about the task of creating purpose, but one of the most effective is in dealing with one’s death anxiety.

Every human being is terrified of death. It is hardwired into our physical make-up. Our evolutionary purpose is to survive, beating death by living as long as possible and by passing our genes on to our offspring.

Confronting death anxiety is incredibly difficult and can be tremendously painful. But Yalom explains that we can never live fully until we have confronted it. In Staring At The Sun, his book on death anxiety, he describes how confronting death is an essential component in the process of finding purpose. If we don’t acknowledge our death anxiety, we live in accordance with it. It drives us to survive, and that becomes our de facto purpose. Rather than choosing a purpose that is meaningful to us, we go with our evolutionary instincts, fighting a battle we are all destined to lose.

Confronting our death anxiety gives us the opportunity to determine what really matters to us. Therapists who follow Yalom’s approach can help you deal with the strong feelings associated with death. Only then can you independently determine a purpose in life.

Choosing Life: Mindfulness

One of the difficulties when talking about mindfulness is that it is not just one thing. Traditional Buddhist mindfulness is often very different to the mindfulness many Westerners practice. And within both Eastern and Western mindfulness, there are endless approaches, with subtle differences in their underlying philosophies.

However, the major foundation of mindfulness, no matter where or how you practice it, is presentness. Being present refers to living life right now, no matter what is going on in this moment. To be fully present, you need to drop judgments and labels, stop trying to feel pleasure and avoid pain, and simply live what is happening right now.

Mindfulness can be useful in learning to destress and relax, but the concept of presentness is independent of these things. The choice to be present is, at its core, the choice to live. It involves foregoing the question of whether life is worth it or not, or even what life is for. You choose to live not because of what life can offer you, but because it is all you have.

Certain approaches to mindfulness will deal directly with the question of purpose. But for others, mindfulness neatly eliminates the problem. Once you are fully aware of your existence, and have let value judgments fall away, life itself is enough. You don’t need to do or achieve anything. Being itself is profound and fulfilling, regardless of whether you are currently experiencing pleasure or pain.

Mindfulness took a long time to get to the Western world. This is not because there were no channels for it, but because Western approaches to life have generally focused on achieving in this world or the next. The concept of not needing to achieve is difficult to get our heads around. The image that inevitably comes to mind is that of a monk, disconnected from the world, living alone on a mountain, eating bread and drinking water.

But Western psychology has embraced mindfulness over the past few decades. We now have evidence that human beings want to do things. We want to achieve. We want to have relationships. We only procrastinate or get “lazy” if there are feelings deterring us from doing things. By allowing oneself to feel those feelings rather than trying to avoid or get rid of them, the obstacles to our goals drop away and we get up and do.

Choosing to be does not mean giving up on our goals or relationships or even hedonistic pleasures. It simply means we forego the desperate need for them. What we choose to do then is therefore freed from the strivings which make us unsatisfied and unfulfilled. It is the most free we can be.

It’s Personal

The above 2 approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do offer significantly different pathways. They are certainly not the only approaches that provide tools to help you find purpose. Finding purpose is ultimately the most personal process you will ever pursue. There is no right or wrong here and there are no guarantees.

Purpose is still a complex issue in psychological theory, but the field is well aware of its centrality. Existing approaches have helped millions, and there is certainly one which is right for you.

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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